Ancient Laws for Modern Times
When is a tent just a tent and not like a bed or a hat? To update Jewish laws, the rabbis reasoned by analogy.
Those sages, we go on to read in Chapter 20, had the very highest expectations of themselves. If Torah was God’s greatest gift to the world, and the rabbis were the guardians of Torah, then they bore a truly cosmic responsibility. Failure would have dire consequences not just for themselves, but for the Jewish people and even for the world as a whole. “Rabbi Yosei ben Elisha says: If you see a generation that many troubles are befalling it, go and examine the judges of Israel, as any calamity that comes to the world comes due to the judges of Israel acting corruptly.” God will not visit the Jewish people until their leaders are righteous: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, will not rest His Divine Presence on the Jewish people until evil judges and officers shall be eliminated from the Jewish people.”
This is, in a way, a reassuring message, since it grants the Jews a kind of autonomy. At a time when the Jews were politically under the sway of Rome and Persia and had little control over their own destiny, the Talmud assures them that the key to world history lies in their own behavior, their own leadership. Indeed, Jewish righteousness even has the power to abolish other religions: “Rav Pappa said: If the arrogant will cease to exist, the Persian fire priests will cease to exist as well.”
After these enormous claims, it is touching to read the rabbis’ advice, given in Shabbat 140b, to aspiring Torah students. The rabbis may have had the fate of the world in their hands, spiritually speaking, but in concrete terms they often seem to have had trouble finding enough to eat. “Rav Chisda said: A student of a Torah academy who buys vegetables should buy long ones.” The reasoning here is that vegetables were sold in bundles measured widthwise: “A bundle is a bundle, and they have a standard thickness at a standard price. However, the addition of length comes free.” Rav Chisda goes on to advise, “A student of a Torah academy who does not have much bread should not eat a vegetable, because it whets the appetite,” and “a student of a Torah academy who has no oil should wash with ditch water.” It is a remarkably concrete picture of scholarly poverty: To study Torah, for many students at least, meant genuine hunger and want. It’s a testament to the rabbis’ faith in Torah that this was considered a fair price to pay.
Finally, Rav Chisda’s litany of advice concludes with his words to his daughters about feminine behavior. “Do not eat bread before your husbands,” he warns, since a man will be disgusted at the sight of a woman’s gluttony. “Do not relieve yourself in the place where your husbands relieve themselves,” since a man must not be exposed to the fact that women also relieve themselves. Then comes an object lesson about sexual modesty. Rav Chisda held out one hand to his daughters, displaying a pearl, and hid something from them in his other hand. They begged and begged to see what it was, until he finally showed them that it was a clod of dirt. The message, in the Koren edition’s words: “A concealed object is more attractive than one on display, even if it is less valuable.” What Chisda’s daughters thought about being likened to clods of dirt is left to the reader to imagine.
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